First Opium War

First Opium War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=First Opium War
partof=the Opium Wars

casus=Various economic and political disputes
territory=Hong Kong ceded to United Kingdom
result=Decisive British victory; Treaty of Nanjing
combatant1=flagicon|Qing Dynasty Qing China
commander1=flagicon|Qing Dynasty Daoguang Emperor
flagicon|Qing Dynasty Lin Zexu
The First Opium War or the First Anglo-Chinese War was fought between the British East India Company and the Qing Dynasty in China from 1839 to 1842 with the aim of forcing China to import British opium. Britain won the war and as a result gained control over Hong Kong.


During the 19th century, trading in goods from China was extremely lucrative for Europeans and Chinese merchants alike. Due to the Qing Dynasty's trade restrictions, whereby international trade was only allowed to take place in Canton (Guangzhou) conducted by imperially sanctioned monopolies, it became uneconomic to trade in low-value manufactured consumer products that the average Chinese could buy from the British like the Indians did.

Instead, the Sino-British trade became dominated by high-value luxury items such as tea (from China to Britain) and silver (from Britain to China), to the extent that European specie metals became widely used in China. Britain had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe to supply the Chinese appetite for silver, which was a costly process at a time before demonetization of silver by Germany in the 1870s. In casting about for other possible commodities to reverse the flow of silver out of the country and into China, the British discovered opium. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Ming dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws in place against its abuse. It was with the mass quantities introduced by the British motivated by the equalization of trade that the drug became prevalent. British importation of opium in large amounts began in 1781 and between 1821 and 1837 import increased fivefold. The drug was produced in the traditionally cotton growing regions of India (under British government monopoly (Bengal) and in the Princely states (Malwa) and was sold on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. The Qing government had largely ignored the problem until the drug had spread widely in Chinese society.

However, in July 1839 rioting British sailors destroyed a temple near Kowloon and murdered a man named Lin Weixi who tried to stop them. Because China did not have a jury trial system or evidentiary process (the magistrate was the prosecutor, judge, jury and would-be executioner), the British government and community in China wanted "extraterritoriality", which meant that British subjects would only be tried by British judges. When the Qing authorities demanded the men be handed over for trial, the British refused. Six sailors were tried by the British authorities in Canton (Guangzhou), but they were immediately released after they reached England. Charles Elliott's authority is in dispute; the British government later claimed that without authority from the Qing government he had no legal right to try anyone, although according to the British Act of Parliament that gave him authority over British merchants and sailors, 'he was expressly appointed to preside over ' Court of Justice with Criminal an Admiralty Jurisdiction for the trial of offenses committed by His Majesty's subjects in the said Dominions or on the high sea within a hundred miles of the coast of China'". [Hanes, W. Travis III, Ph.D. and Frank Sanello, 'The Opium Wars; the Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another', New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002.]

The Qing authorities also insisted that British merchants not be allowed to trade unless they signed a bond, under penalty of death, promising not to smuggle opium, agreeing to follow Chinese laws, and acknowledging Qing legal jurisdiction. Refusing to hand over any suspects or agree to the bonds, Charles Elliot ordered the British community to withdraw from Canton and prohibited trade with the Chinese. Some merchants who didn't deal in opium were willing to sign the bond, thereby weakening the British trading position.


Preparing for war, the British seized Hong Kong (then a minor outpost) as a base on 23 August 1839. In late October the "Thomas Coutts" arrived in China and sailed to Guangdong. This ship was owned by Quakers who refused to deal in opium, and its captain, Smith, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority by banning trade. The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpeh, an island near Humen. In order to prevent other British ships from following the "Thomas Coutts", Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River (China). Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the "Royal Saxon", attempted to sail to Guangdong. Then the "Volage" and "Hyacinth" fired a warning shot at the "Royal Saxon". The official Qing navy's report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel and also reported a great victory for that day. Elliot reports that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpeh between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that Chinese would reject any contacts with British and there would be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpeh and head for Tung Lo Wan, convert|20|mi|km|-1 from Macau, but the merchants liked to harbour in Hong Kong. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk. In 1840 Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods at Macau and they would pay rents and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue to supply food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to stop helping British in China.

Lord Palmerston, the English Prime Minister initiated the Opium War in order to obtain full compensation for the destroyed opium. China lost the war and was forced to open its five ports to foreign merchants and to permit a territorial concession of Hong Kong.

This injust war was denounced in Parliament as "unjust and iniquitous" by young William Ewart Gladstone, who accused lord Palmerston "to protect an infamous contraband traffic." The great outrage was expressed by the public opinion and the press, in America and England, for these 19th century drug dealers, protected by the English colonial interests, and its government.

In retaliation, the British Government and British East India Company had reached a conclusion that they would attack Guangdong. The military cost would be paid by the British Government. In June 1840, an expeditionary force of 15 barracks ships, 4 steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats with 4000 marines reached Guangdong from Singapore. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade. Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, then Foreign secretary of Britain, the British expedition blockaded the Mouth of Pearl River and moved north to take Chusan.

The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue forts which guarded the mouth of the Pearl River—the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated the Chinese at Ningbo and at the military post of Chinghai.

By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and were occupying Shanghai. The Qing government proved incapable of dealing with Western Powers on an equal basis, either politically or militarily. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China's first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanjing. Gen. Sir Anthony Blaxland Stransham led the Royal Marines during the Opium War as a young officer, and as the 'Grand Old Man of the Army', was awarded two knighthoods by Queen Victoria.Fact|date=August 2008

Legacies of the War

The ease with which the British forces had defeated the Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing Dynasty's prestige. This almost certainly contributed to the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864)Fact|date=July 2008. The success of the First Opium War allowed the British to resume the drug trafficking within China. It also paved the way for the opening of the lucrative Chinese market and Chinese society to missionary endeavours. Some Chinese historians feel that the First Opium War was initiated by the British in order to make profit from trafficking the drug. This kind of invasion was encouraged by Queen VictoriaFact|date=April 2008 in the Second Opium War in China.

Among the most notable figures in the events leading up to military action in the Opium War was the man the Manchu Daoguang emperor assigned to suppress the opium trade [ [ All about Oscar ] ] ; Lin Zexu, known for his superlative service under the Qing Dynasty as "Lin the Clear Sky" [ [ Opium War ] ] . Although he had some initial success, with the arrest of 1,700 opium dealers and the destruction of 2.6 million pounds of opium, he was made a scapegoat for the actions leading to British retaliation, and was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium import and use in China [ [ East Asian Studies ] ] . Nevertheless, Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of 19th century China, and his likeness has been immortalized at various locations around the world [ [ Monument to the People's Heroes, Beijing - Lonely Planet Travel Guide ] ] / [ [ whoguys ] ] / [ [ Lin Zexu Memorial ] ] / [ [ Lin Zexu Memorial Museum | Ola Macau Travel Guide ] ] .

See also

* Second Opium War
* David Sassoon
* Anglo-Chinese relations
* William Jardine (surgeon)
* William John Napier, 9th Lord Napier
* History of China
* British military history
* Forbes family


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Opium War (disambiguation) — Opium Wars is a collective term for the Anglo Chinese disputes that included the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860). Opium War(s) or The Opium War(s) may also refer to: The Opium War (film), a 1997 Chinese film Opium …   Wikipedia

  • Second Opium War — Infobox Military Conflict conflict=Second Opium War partof=the Opium Wars caption=Upper North Taku Fort in 1860. date=1856 1860 place=China casus=Chinese boarding of British registered ship the Arrow territory= result=Anglo French victory;… …   Wikipedia

  • Opium Wars — Opium War redirects here. For other uses, see Opium War (disambiguation). Opium Wars Combat at Guangzhou (Canton) during the Second Opium War …   Wikipedia

  • Opium — For other uses, see Opium (disambiguation). Opium Opium poppy fruit exuding latex from a cut Botanical Opium Source plant(s) Papaver somnifer …   Wikipedia

  • Opium Wars — Two trading wars of the mid 19th century in China. The first (1839–42 was between China and Britain, and the second (1856–60; also called the Arrow War or Anglo French War) was between China and a British French alliance. Trade developed between… …   Universalium

  • opium trade — ▪ British and Chinese history       in Chinese history, the traffic that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in which Western nations, mostly Great Britain, exported opium grown in India and sold it to China. The British used the profits… …   Universalium

  • Opium Wars — (1839–1842)    A conflict that opened China physically to political, economic, and social influences from the outside world and heralded the period of unequal treaties in which the Great Powers carved out spheres of influence to exploit the… …   Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914

  • Opium and Romanticism — Readers of Romantic poetry usually come into contact with literary criticisms about the influence of opium on its works. Whether or not opium had a direct effect is still up for debate, however the literary criticisms that have emerged throughout …   Wikipedia

  • War in Afghanistan (2001–present) — War in Afghanistan Part of the Afghan civil war and the War on Terror …   Wikipedia

  • First Sino-Japanese War — Japanese troops during the Sino Japanese war …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.